Philly's finest transcend hip-hop to raise the bar on funk
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
When Jimmy Fallon installed Philadelphia's Roots as his house band in 2009, it seemed a savvy bid for late-night cred that offered well-deserved employment to name-brand hip-hoppers of real but limited chart viability. But rather than settling into second bananadom, the Roots kept rolling - in fact, upshifted. They were prominent on the show itself. Drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson remained hyperactive as a producer, a DJ, a freelancer, a tweeter, you name it. They kept playing out. And their 2010 album, "How I Got Over," was even better than their 2008 album, "Rising Down."
A year and a half later they're set to release another album Dec. 6: "undun," 10 linked songs about a ghetto kid gone wrong. And to explore how it would work live, they booked a show called "The Roots Present: an undun performance" for three nights at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom. Having warmed to the Roots late, after keyboardist Kamal Gray outgrew his Roy Ayers homages, I'd never seen them live, so I'm not certain how their Nov. 29 launch measured up. But I can offer an informed guess. It was a little looser - their hype man called it a jam, and at one briefly shambolic juncture, ?uestlove shouted, "This is a rehearsal." But as it turned out, that didn't really matter.
The Roots aren't the only "hip-hop band," but they've always been one of the few. As they conceive themselves, ?uestlove is as important as lead rapper Black Thought. This has confused straight-up hip-hop fans as well as limiting the Roots' access to the sampled hooks that can result in breakthrough hits. But watching a set that began with two songs by reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, looking like a high school history teacher in his gold-rimmed specs and sounding 43 rather than 63, I realized that the term "hip-hop band" had thrown me off. Even more than in Fallon, this was a band band. What soon became clear is what a hell of a good one.
Two drummers, including ?uestlove's percussionist protege F. Knuckles. Two keyboard players, including U.K.-spawned soul polymath James Poyser. Guitar, bass, and - you should hear it skank - tuba. Five or so vocalists, Black Thought the chief front man and legendary Philly falsetto Bilal the icing on the cake, although most of the players have voice mikes too. Over the hour they played after Cliff went off, they did maybe six discrete songs - picking out the new ones was tricky. "How I Got Over"'s "Walk Alone," "Phrenology"'s "Quills," and "Undun"'s "The Otherside" distinguished themselves, but not always the others. File that under didn't really matter as well.
Because at some level this really was a jam, and a spectacular one. Once or twice it almost halted to get itself together, and the territory surrounding the predictably phlegmy tuba solo was pretty undefined. But much more often the show came together the way I guess all jam bands do occasionally - only few jam bands are led by drummers, much less the finest one in popular music. So where most jam bands are designed to showcase soloists, here individual voices clashed and meshed as part of a living dynamo that at its most onrushingly interactive had the audience shouting with excitement. Everything was a rhythm element, including the rappers and singers whose words not even the maddest fans had memorized yet. So don't call them a hip-hop band. Call them a funk band - easily the best of the 21st century. Jazzier than was the norm in classic funk, but with Kamal a far more resourceful player than when he was coming up, devoid of fusioneering jazzmatazz. Something new rhythmically, in fact. Something to keep them on their toes after they're through with their day job. Something to keep us all on our toes.
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.